Ash Wednesday 2018
Beloved. Today we begin the holy and penitential season of Lent, a period of 40 days—not including Sundays—in which we remember our sins, by examining our heart and life in the mirror of God’s holy Law and sorrow over them; and in these 40 days we remember Jesus’ work to save us from our sin by taking our sins upon Himself and suffering God’s wrath and punishment for them, in place of us. There, as we see Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, forsaken by His Father, suffering the very pangs of hell, we see the true horror of sin; there we see what our sins earn us. But at the same time we see the love of Jesus for us, who willingly bore the curse and punishment of our sin; we see the love of the Father who willingly gave up His Son into this suffering and death in order that we may be reconciled to Him.
For us, the most glorious thing to remember as we enter this season of Lent is that in Jesus we are reconciled to God; we are in Christ His Son at peace with God. No matter what! No matter how great the sin we commit. Whatever sin we commit, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is greater and has paid the penalty for that sin. So this means that we can be bold in this penitential time and not be afraid to search out sin our heart and life. We need not be timid; we need not try to explain away our sin; we need not try to say sin is not sin; we need not fear guilt. Why not? That sin is forgiven—however many there are and how grievous they may be! Certain of that forgiveness, we can be bold in holding our life up to the mirror of God’s holy law, the Ten Commandments. But since our sins are forgiven us in Jesus, that does not mean that we don’t care about our sin and think lightly about sin, not caring if we sin or not. Instead, just the opposite is true. Since we have experienced God’s love and grace in Jesus, in His suffering and death, in His forgiveness, we love Him and want to do His will; we strive not to sin. And so we use the holy season of Lent to look at our hearts and life to recognize the sins that drove Jesus to the cross for us, and where we see sin—in love and gratitude and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we strive to root out that sin. We recognize that sin; we grieve that we have committed that sin; we trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of that sin; and in the joy of that forgiveness we fight all the harder against temptation and sin.
Lent, which begins today, has that two-fold focus: our sin and Jesus’ suffering for that sin.
There are various practices that believers both in OT times and down through today have used to help them sharpen their time of introspection and repentance. One of those practices is fasting, which is mentioned by both the OT prophet Joel who records the Lord’s words: Even now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning; and by Jesus Himself in the Gospel: Whenever you fast... Fasting is to go without food, or without certain foods for a period of time, as you are physically able. At the heart of fasting in the Scriptural sense is not losing weight or some other health improvement scheme but self-denial, saying “no” to yourself, to your appetites and desires. Fasting is a spiritual exercise by which we can, by God’s grace and strengthening, hone our “skills” to say no to the desires and temptations that arise both from within us—our old sinful nature—and from outside of us—the allures and enticements of the world that call us away from the things of the Lord and thinking on Him and His will and His way. The holy apostle writes [Ph 4.8]: Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Fasting helps us do this as through it, we learn to deny ourselves; we learn that all our appetites need not be fed—and we will live to tell. How vital it is in our day that we learn all the more to say no, to deny ourselves, our appetites—whatever they may be. We are surrounded by a culture and advertisers who see people as nothing more than all sorts of emotions and appetites that must be appeased. People are seen as no higher than the animals. Advertisers create appetites for things we never knew we had. The culture around us tells us that we have to satisfy every whim/ appetite. And of course sin is most often the result. To help us judge and to say no to every self-indulgent appetite and whim, to help strengthen us to say no—we have the spiritual exercise of fasting. If, by the Holy Spirit’s power, we train ourselves to say “no” to some food for a certain time, won’t it be easier to say “no” to some sin or temptation? Won’t it be easier to deny ourselves some sinful appetite if we are in the practice of self-denial?
But, whenever we have something good from God, the devil comes in to corrupt it. Hear again Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, part of His Sermon on the Mount: Whenever you fast [that’s something good, but here is where the devil comes to corrupt it] do not make yourself look sad like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show everyone that they are fasting. Fasting is a spiritual exercise—a good thing—but it becomes wrong, becomes sin, when it is done for outward show, to get people to notice you, for whatever reason. Anything that we do for and in the kingdom of God is not for show; it is not to make us front and center; instead, it is for the glory of God and to point to Him. This is where the beauty of Lent comes in. It is an introspective season, we look inward. It is very personal—me and the Lord; these are my sins, this is His grace toward me, these are my weaknesses and these are the ways that I, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, fight these sins and temptations. The “communion of saints” aspect of the highly personal Lent season is that my fellow Christians are doing/ going through the same thing I am; I can encourage and pray for them and they can encourage and pray for me. Here is the beauty of Ash Wednesday. Many Christians have ashes on their forehead. Some cynical ones would say that they do it out of habit and for show—contrary to our Lord’s words do not make yourself look sad like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show everyone that they are fasting. But no, rightly done the ashes are a confession of faith—I am a sinner and the wages of sin is death and as God told Adam [Gn. 3.19]: dust you are and to dust you will return. We are reminded of that as we see ourselves in the mirror; and our fellow Christians are preaching/ confessing the same to us as we see their ashes. It drives home to us the seriousness of our sin, the necessity of our confession and the necessity and beauty of Jesus’ work.
In the same way, our fasting is the sign/ reminder to us of our repentance and humility. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that it is not apparent to people that you are fasting, but only to your Father who sees what is unseen. Jesus doesn’t say not to fast but to make sure it is done to the glory of God. The main thing—just like anything we do as Christians—is that it flows from a believing heart; that we love and believe correctly; that we feel sorrow and humility. There is no benefit if there is something outward but no change of heart. But notice something interesting: when we fast, Jesus says, anoint your head and wash your face. Those are acts reserved for joyous occasions. The point? –Simply this: even in the times and acts of repentance and humility, we have the joy of forgiveness and grace of God. We are never without them; we live, move and breath in that forgiveness even as we are in the humility of repentance. Because why? Only when we are certain of God’s grace to us and forgiveness in Jesus can we honestly search our hearts and lives and repent. In our fasting/ in any and all self-denial, the compassion and mercy of the Lord outshines any physical discomfort.
Much as the ashes of Ash Wednesday show and are a confession of our repentance and humility, so also is our Lenten fast, our self-denial. At the same time our fasting—going without food or a certain food for a period of time if we are physically able—reflects our own helplessness before God. Without food our life is in danger. So fasting is a confession of our total reliance on God. We are reminded of Jesus’ word to the devil when the devil tempted Jesus, who had fasted for 40 days and nights, to turn to the stones into loaves of bread. Jesus said in response to the temptation [Mt. 4.4]: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The point is this: the only reason the bread or any food nourishes us is because of God’s word and command that it do so. If God were to take away His command to the bread to nourish us, it wouldn’t. By fasting, we are confessing that our whole life and existence depends on God’s providing for and sustaining us. We are spiritually and physically helpless.
But fasting also serves another purpose. Luther points out in the catechism section on properly receiving the Blessed Sacrament: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. Again, if physically able, many Christians fast a certain amount of time before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. When a person fasts, foregoes earthly food and sustenance, that is a confession of faith that they are looking forward to a new life, feeding on supernatural food. Fasting before receiving the Blessed Sacrament, points forward to feeding on Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Bread from heaven: Jesus says [Jn. 6.33, 35]: For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world….I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. By fasting, especially before receiving Jesus, the Bread of Life, in the Blessed Sacrament, the Christian confesses that this world will be replaced by the next. The things of this life, like food, serve this life, but we are looking toward the next life—forsaking for a time earthly food to receive and feed on that Bread from Heaven, our Lord Jesus.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that it is not apparent to people that you are fasting, but only to your Father who sees what is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Fasting is a good thing. It does not earn us forgiveness of sins—Jesus has done that already. But it is a simple act of faith of a believer, who is physically able, to show the Lord a broken and contrite heart, the heart of one who knows he/ she is a sinner, is truly sorry for those sins and earnestly seeks the forgiveness of that sin. Doesn’t the Lord see into the heart? Doesn’t He already know when the person is truly sorry for sin and trusting in Jesus seeks forgiveness? Of course! Why, then, the fasting? It’s for us, not for God. As His dear Christians, we are not simply content to say, “Well God, knows so I don’t have to…” Yes, He does know. But the Christian never wants to try to get away with the bare minimum. Instead, we want to show God and live for God, to the full. And remember—fasting serves our spiritual good as it is self-denial so that we learn and are strengthened to escape the control of our passions and appetites. It is all part of our spiritual warfare against our old sinful nature as St. Paul writes [Gal 5.24]: And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. We have the great privilege of the Lenten fast, flowing from faith, to grow in the faith and in our fight against sin. As we do so quietly and humbly, the Lord will, in His grace, reward us. INJ Amen